ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

America’s Horn of Africa

Eriteans and Ethiopians make a home in Washington, D.C.

On a mild November morning, a cross section of the Horn of Africa enjoys spiced tea, espresso drinks and pastries at Hailu Dama Café and Restaurant in Arlington, Virginia. Nearly everyone in the cafe is from either Eritrea or Ethiopia, two nations that share common roots and traditions but have been at war — except for a brief period of peace — since 1962. From 1998 to 2000 some 100,000 people died in a bloody border conflict. Relations between the countries remain tense, but not among the hungry customers at Hailu Dama.

“There’s no such thing as, ‘he’s from this place’ or ‘she’s from that place,’ ” said co-owner Amsale Saife Selassie. “At the espresso bar, nobody cares about that.”

That acceptance extends into the kitchen, where Mrs. Selassie bakes cakes without alcohol for Muslim weddings and cakes without dairy products for those Orthodox Christians who may be fasting. Among her staff is a recently arrived 21-year-old Muslim woman who works as a waitress while studying to be a nurse. Even Mrs. Selassie’s personal faith reaches across denominational lines: An Ethiopian Orthodox Christian, she often attends a Roman Catholic church and has a devotion to the rosary.

Hailu Dama is divided into three sections: a quiet sit-down restaurant; a market selling everything from Ethiopian bread to compact discs; and a bustling cafe with a pastry counter, espresso bar and tables. It is one of many businesses listed in the Ethiopian yellow pages, a 1,000-page compendium of Ethiopian-owned businesses in the Washington, D.C., area that began as an 80-page book 15 years ago. Ethiopians began immigrating to the District of Columbia and its suburbs in the aftermath of Ethiopia’s “Red Terror,” a violent political campaign in the late 1970’s led by the country’s ruling Marxist junta, or Derg, that led to the deaths of as many as 500,000 people.

The Derg targeted younger educated professionals, many of whom fled to Sudan and Kenya, or to Europe, before finding refuge in the United States in the 1980’s. After 1991, when the Derg collapsed and a transitional government was formed, the flow of people out of Ethiopia slowed. Yet, to this day relatives of former refugees settle in the United States.

Estimates of the number of Ethiopians in the Washington, D.C., area vary widely, with some suggesting as many as 250,000. Dr. Tsehaye Teferra, president of the Arlington-based Ethiopian Community Development Council, puts the number closer to 100,000. The community is scattered, with Ethiopians living in the Virginia cities of Alexandria and Arlington and the Adams Morgan and Shaw neighborhoods of the District of Columbia.

In 2005, the Ethiopian community in Adams Morgan tried unsuccessfully to designate 9th Street NW, between T and U streets, as “Little Ethiopia.” With or without the official designation, a short walk down either 9th or U streets shows that this stretch of the historically African-American neighborhood is unmistakably Ethiopian. Eateries such as Dukem Ethiopian Restaurant, Abiti Ethiopian Cuisine and Queen of Sheba Restaurant serve traditional stews of chopped and marinated beef or lamb, often with peppers, onions and spices, accompanied by — or served atop — injera, a soft, flat, spongy bread, to a diverse clientele.

Mixed in with these Ethiopian restaurants are a handful of Eritrean-owned businesses, such as the family-owned and -operated Selam Restaurant and Harambe African Café. Eritrean cuisine, similar to Ethiopian, consists mainly of stews, with beef or lamb, lentils, fava beans and spices. While most stews contain meat, the many nonmeat options make Ethiopian and Eritrean restaurants popular choices for vegetarians.

Once an Ethiopian province, Eritrea declared its independence in 1993 after its citizens voted overwhelmingly for self-rule in a U.N.-supervised referendum. Both nations are ethnically and religiously diverse, divided largely between Orthodox Christians and Sunni Muslims, with Animist, Catholic, Jewish and growing Protestant minorities.

Relations between the nations’ political leaders soured in 1998, and war broke out over disputed territory along the border. Though the war technically ended with a peace agreement in 2000, the two sides have yet to agree on the disputed territory and many fear renewed conflict.

Seven thousand miles away in North America, individual Eritreans and Ethiopians — Catholic, Orthodox and Muslim — may eat and drink together at restaurants and cafes, but their communities interact and cooperate much less frequently.

“On an individual level, I don’t think Eritreans would have any problem going to Dama and having a cup of coffee or some cake,” said Dr. Teferra. “But if there was a community-wide function, you would not see that kind of interaction. If there were a rally called by Ethiopians, you would not see an Eritrean organization coming to that rally.”

In his many years of working with the community, he has never seen any major effort by any group to bring reconciliation among Eritreans (who may number as many as 50,000) and Ethiopians. And tensions between the natives of each country are only the beginning of the many divisions afflicting the people of the Horn of Africa.

“It is very confusing,” he said, adding that among Eritreans and Ethiopians are groups that support and oppose the current governments in each country.

“Each has its own following, and the churches are divided accordingly, the restaurants are divided accordingly, the businesses are divided accordingly.”

“Then there are religious divisions,” he continued. “You have Catholics, evangelicals, Orthodox and Muslims. Then, within the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, there are those who follow the hierarchy in Ethiopia and those who are opposed to it.”

Eritrean Orthodox parishes in North America — which until 1993 formed part of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church — are also divided into several groups, typically along political lines.

Many of the divisions in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church stem from 1991, when the then patriarch resigned after he was accused of collaborating with the Communist regime. In 1992, the synod of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church elected Abune Paulos patriarch, but the Ethiopian archbishop in the United States did not recognize his election and subsequently broke communion with the patriarchate. Now, some parishes are in communion with the patriarchal church in Addis Ababa, some are in communion with a recently established synod in North America and some function independently of both.

But among individual Ethiopian Orthodox Christians, devotion to the church has more to do with a faith passed down for centuries than with these recent divisions.

“As an Ethiopian, our heritage is to endure, to consume less, to think deeper, to be reserved,” said Daniel Goshu, an Ethiopian immigrant who lived in Sweden for 12 years before moving to Virginia in 1995. “Our church is unchanged for 2,000 years. It is still there: endurance and consistency. That is what I inherited, and it walks with me always.”

Mr. Goshu describes his migration as “incomplete”; in his heart he yearns to help resolve the social and economic problems of his homeland. He also misses three aspects of life back home: the sun, the freedom to walk wherever he needs to go and being in close proximity to his church. He and his wife hope to pass on to their children, who are ages 10 and 12, a spiritual faith that has survived centuries.

“It is hard to know the secret of our church,” Mr. Goshu said. “There is no church in the world that has survived attacks from so many directions and still survived. In modern times, people say religion is prosperity. But when I was in Ethiopia, Christianity didn’t mean prosperity. It was something more spiritual.”

Most Catholic Eritreans and Ethiopians belong to the Ge’ez Catholic Church, which follows the rites and traditions of the Eritrean and Ethiopian Orthodox churches, including the use of the ancient Ge’ez language, and is in full communion with the bishop of Rome.

Organized in 1961 as an autonomous metropolitan church, the church now includes about 223,000 people worldwide. Ge’ez Catholics have one parish community in the Washington area, Kidane Mehret. During the years of the border war, the parish was led by Abba Tesfamariam Baraki, an Ethiopian immigrant who has since been incardinated in the Latin (Roman) Catholic Archdiocese of Washington, D.C.

Eritreans and Ethiopians worshiped together at Kidane Mehret during the 17 years Abba Baraki led the parish, but keeping the groups together was a challenge for the priest. Still, during the border war, local media descended on the parish, highlighting it as an example of cooperation among Eritreans and Ethiopians.

“We had catechetical programs together, youth programs together and the parish council met as one council,” he said. “But things got worse after the border war. Extremists tried to incite division, but the bishops did not encourage it. Bishops would come from Eritrea or Ethiopia and celebrate a communal Divine Liturgy. Occasionally, intermarriages happened and might still be happening. Now, people are tired of politics and are looking for peace and some sort of reconciliation.”

Today, the parish celebrates two liturgies on most Sundays: a 10 a.m. liturgy in Ge’ez and a noon liturgy in Tigrinya, the language of Eritreans from the central part of the country and of Ethiopians from the province of Tigray. But on feast days, the entire community worships together, drawing 1,000 people, according to Abba Araia Ghiday Ghebray, who has served as pastor of Kidane Mehret for more than a year.

Abba Ghebray, a native of Ethiopia, said he encounters only minor grumblings from Ethiopians and Eritreans who want to break away. The parish council, he said, consists of five Ethiopians and five Eritreans who continue to meet together as one council.

“I don’t like politics inside or around the church,” he said. “[When] you come to this church, you are brothers and sisters. You come to the church to pray. I say it many times, and some people are happy with that.”

In the district’s Debre Selam Kidist Mariam Ethiopian Orthodox Church, many parents bring their children to church on Saturdays for a weekly academic and cultural enrichment program. For those brought up in Ethiopia’s more communal and church-centered atmosphere, rearing children in the United States can be a challenge, and the program helps instill uniquely Ethiopian cultural values.

“We do everything as in Ethiopia, but this is not Ethiopia,” said Sehine Gizaw, who brings her 8-year-old son, Noah, to the weekly enrichment program. “My son reads and writes the language we speak. I try to raise him in the culture, and this is the only way I can do it.

“What I knew growing up does not exist here,” she added. “So we spend a lot of time at church. The discipline that I grew up with — the only way I can find it and pass it on is through the church.”

Noah is being reared in an environment much more diverse than his mother’s. At his last birthday party, five of his friends were white, four were Hispanic and only two were Ethiopian. In a decade or two, Noah may be looking to get married. Mrs. Gizaw raises her eyebrows at the possibility of him marrying a non-Ethiopian or a non-Christian.

“I would say up front that I probably would not tolerate a Muslim, but it’s a choice he has to make,” she said.

Solomon Teklaki, who founded the enrichment program at the parish, then shared his story of having been engaged to a Muslim woman.

“We celebrated both holidays and had that beautiful, mutual understanding. As long as someone believes in the one God and has that moral guide, my family was not offended. They thought it was the influence of my having lived in Sudan,” he added, “but it was accepted well.”

Mrs. Gizaw’s tone changed slightly after hearing of Mr. Teklaki’s experience.

“There is an international theme in our home,” she said. “I have no problems with anybody. If he wants to marry a Muslim, I would question things, but I would definitely honor the choice of my child.”

Among Muslim parents, the feelings are often the same. Adey Muhammad, a 25-year-old Eritrean, knows that when she finds a spouse, it will probably wreak havoc on her family. Many of her friends are Ethiopian, and they joke with her that she can come to their parties as long as she’s not wearing an Eritrean flag.

“The majority of my friends are not Muslim,” she said. “I seriously think it’s going to be hell for my parents. ”

“My parents want me to find that one, true, good Eritrean Muslim,” she added. “For me, that’s a little hard. You meet someone, and they’re a little too extreme, either religiously or culturally.”

Ms. Muhammad finds her generation less tolerant than her parents’ generation. “The older generation is a little more open to sharing and being a neighbor,” she said. “I’ve noticed it sort of skipped a generation. Especially now with the conflict going on, the younger generation is a little more intense, a little more involved.”

Back at Hailu Dama, Mrs. Selassie, too, hoped her 20-year-old son and 16-year-old daughter would someday find Ethiopian spouses. But she knows that many of their friends are not Ethiopian, and so chances are her future daughter- and son- in-law may come from different cultures.

“I just pray to God it is a blessed person,” she said. “If it’s an Ethiopian, it would make it a lot easier for all of us. But other than that, it is God’s will.”

Just as her bakery and restaurant cater to Eritrean, Ethiopian, Sudanese and Somali peoples of all faiths and political persuasions, she hopes her children are open-minded, accepting of others and willing to learn about other cultures.

Mr. Goshu, a customer at Dama since 2000 when he helped design and remodel the restaurant and cafe, calls himself a pacifist and hopes the next generation will work together to solve the political and socioeconomic problems that plague the Horn of Africa, perhaps the poorest region in the world.

“We have a love-hate relationship,” he said, describing relations between Ethiopians and Eritreans. “We see each other in churches, social gatherings and in this cafe since childhood. Historically, we get divided and subdivided, but we will be united, I hope.

“Those who are mature and wise break that hate and stay together.”

Vincent Gragnani regularly contributes to these pages. Photographer Erin Edwards joined the staff of ONE magazine last July.

Get to know us and stay informed about the impact your support makes.

Nous constatons que votre préférence linguistique est le français.
Voudriez-vous être redirigé sur notre site de langue française?

Oui! Je veux y accéder.

Hemos notado que su idioma preferido es español. ¿Le gustaría ver la página de Asociación Católica para el Bienestar del Cercano Oriente en español?

Vee página en español